He was destined, almost christened for greatness at a very young age. Headed to the National Football League, no question. The next great running back from Hoboken, the next Parade All-American, next All-State superstar.
When Nyjon Freeman was just 12 years old and carrying the ball for the Hoboken Pop Warner team, people chirped how great he was going to become. A year later, he shocked local youth football programs all over New Jersey when he galloped for an astounding 44 touchdowns in just six games.
When Freeman entered Hoboken High School in 2016, he was elevated to the varsity team from the start and began his ascent toward glory.
“We all knew he had potential,” said Hoboken head coach Keeon Walker, himself an All-State running back at Hoboken in his heyday, leading the Red Wings to the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 1, Group III state title in 1996. “He had the kind of potential that excited everyone. He runs with such intensity. Defenders can’t stop him.”
Freeman then began his sophomore year with a game for the ages. In the season opener against Verona, Freeman rushed for 287 yards on 18 carries and scored four touchdowns. The touchdown runs were from 42, 65, 44 and 60 yards respectively. Freeman brought back images of superstar Dwayne Peterson, who garnered Parade All-American honors in 1989, leading the state in scoring after rushing for more than 2,300 yards.
But then, disaster struck. In a game at JFK Stadium in Hoboken against Ramsey on Oct. 6, 2017, Freeman had perhaps the most devastating injury a high school football player could endure.
At first, the play where Freeman was injured on didn’t appear that bad. The Ramsey player made the tackle on Freeman, then rolled forward.
It was only after the roll that everyone in attendance saw just how truly gruesome of an injury it was.
Freeman tore every single ligament in his knee. His leg was hanging off, limp, waving aimlessly.
“I was on the field and saw the guy roll up on him,” Walker said. “I didn’t think it was that bad. But as he rolled over and you saw his leg dangling, you knew how bad it was.”
Freeman felt the same way.
“To be honest, when I saw my leg, I thought right there it was over,” Freeman said. “I was done. All my dreams of playing in college and professionally were gone. The way it looked, there was no way I was getting back on the field again. Once I saw my leg, dangling like that, I was scared. I had no control of it. I was in shock. I couldn’t believe it.”
Freeman required several hours of surgery on Nov. 17, 2017, then again on Feb. 19, 2018.
“The ACL [anterior cruciate ligament] had to be repaired again,” Freeman said. “I went through all that rehab and now I had to have surgery to repair it again. I’ve had setbacks a couple of times in my life, so I knew that I just had to keep working.”
Incredibly, the hopes of the Redwings went out the window when Freeman went down. They lost all seven of their games without Freeman, uncharacteristically missing out on the state playoffs.
Freeman first had hopes to return in 2018, but the knee had not recovered. The powers-that-be all decided that it would be best to hold Freeman out for the entire 2018 season, then have him come back for a strong senior year in 2019.
But there was never a guarantee – except for in the mind of Nyjon Freeman.
“Oh, I was coming back,” Freeman said. “There was never any question. I had to get back on the field. I couldn’t stop working. It was hard seeing my teammates down and losing games without me. Being on the sidelines, watching those games was so hard. I just wanted to get back on the field. I knew I was going to do big things and I wasn’t going to stop.”
Freeman hooked up with a new physical therapist named Gerard Friedman. It was perfect pairing – Freeman and Friedman.
“He played the main role in my recovery,” Freeman said. “He pushed me through to make sure I did everything right. He was making sure I got back on the field.”
Walker didn’t have great plans for Freeman. And he had talented junior Kyrin Rhone, a 1,000-yard rusher last year as a sophomore, already in the backfield.
When it came to Freeman, everyone in Hoboken walked on collective egg shells. They treated the Freeman situation very carefully, but very gingerly.
“When a kid has that kind of a devastating injury, you don’t know what to expect,” Walker said. “We were all hopeful.”
Freeman took it easy throughout the Redwings’ first three games. He had 40 yards in a loss to Lincoln in the first week, rushed for 53 yards in the Redwings’ win over Marist and then had 40 yards in the loss to Shabazz. Those were not exactly Nyjon Freeman numbers.
Last week, when the Redwings took on Cedar Grove, a long-time nemesis of the Redwings, especially in the NJSIAA state playoffs, Freeman had a feeling that this was going to be his coming out party.
“I knew I had to put the team on my back,” Freeman said. “I’m a senior and I should play like one. It was an important game, one we had to have. I had to go hard in this game. It was go hard or go home.”
Freeman went especially hard. He carried the ball 24 times for 268 yards and three touchdowns, leading the Redwings to a thrilling 44-38 victory.
Get this: Walker believes that Freeman was only 75 percent of his true self.
“Every week, he keeps getting better,” Walker said. “He has the kind of potential that when he’s at 100 percent, watch out.”
There’s no denying that. And there’s no one in Hudson County that isn’t rooting for Nyjon Freeman to make it all the way back and live out his dream. The injury was so gruesome that Hudl, the nation’s top collector of high school game videos, has taken it down. It’s not available for the public to see.
But Freeman has watched it.
“Oh, I’ve watched it plenty of times,” Freeman said. “I use it as motivation.”
Both Walker and Freeman are hopeful that college recruiters will see the tape against Cedar Grove and offer him a college scholarship. His runs are very reminiscent to those he enjoyed as a freshman and early his sophomore year. Freeman is now bigger, standing 6-feet tall and weighing 210 pounds.
“I’ve contacted a lot of coaches,” Walker said. “Somebody is going to see the type of athlete he is. Someone is going to give this kid another year to heal and give him a shot.”
Freeman also plays basketball in the winter and baseball in the spring – and has prospects as a baseball player as well.
“I’m just taking it week by week,” Freeman said. “I just want to keep progressing. Of course, it’s good that we won. I’m just glad that I’m getting a chance to show colleges what they want to see. I should be back on the radar.”
“I’m obviously happy for him,” Walker said. “I know how much he loves to play football. We all had the opportunity to live out our dreams in college. [Walker played at Syracuse]. I’m excited to have him back and I’m excited for him that he’s back.”
And Cedar Grove might think even better than ever.